So many thanks to Lana for the opportunity to share a guest post at her blog. I hope this post offers something useful and inspiring to her dedicated readers.
When in Doubt
There is a spot running in my local TV market that is meant to bring awareness to mental illness: a man asks a woman about her weekend, to which she replies that her depression makes some days good and some not so good, this past weekend was a not so good one. There is an awkward pause. Voiceover: avoiding a difficult conversation only adds to the stigma mental illness. Then the man says, “Do you want to talk about it?”
I really love this spot. It attempts to improve a situation I find myself in regularly, the how are you? conundrum. I’ve been on both sides of the conversation, but because I’ve had a chronic pain disease for 7 years, I am usually the one making my friends uncomfortable.
A couple of well-wishers have shared what not to say to your friend with invisible disease articles with me over the last few years, which I truly appreciate as a gesture of support and love. I really do understand that it is hard to know how to approach me. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of the best advice I have seen:
WHAT NOT TO SAY
- But you look so good! To be honest, I’m a little torn about this first one. My ego likes to hear that I don’t look as terrible as I feel. However, this usually contains an undercurrent of you can’t be as sick a you say you are. When in doubt, tell your friend that you know how hard it must be to maintain such a positive exterior, considering what pain they must be in.
- My friend’s aunt had (insert generic health concern), she used (insert magic supplement, diet or exercise) and is completely healthy now. This can be hurtful, even when you are trying to be helpful, because it assumes that your friend has not tried every possible cure, twice. Trust me, if it is out there, I have googled it 100 times, talked to 3 Doctors about it and tried it anyway. I have Doctors for medical advice and diagnosis; friends for consolation and love.
- Illness is caused by stress, you need to learn to relax. Did you notice the tick I developed just now, when you said that to me? While many illnesses are exaggerated by stress, they are rarely caused by it. Best cure for stress I’ve found is feeling like you have the understanding and support of your family and friends.
WHAT TO SAY
- I don’t know what to say, but I care about you. This means the world to me. It shows that you understand the impact my disease has on my life, but doesn’t assume anything. Friends are often unsure what to say, and therefore say nothing at all. This makes me feel alone and unseen. It is encouraging to know that someone is paying attention and cares, ever after years of illness.
- I’m bringing dinner Thursday. Can you eat lasagna or soup? Chronic illness never ends, but the support does. As much as I appreciate my friends saying “Let me know if you need anything,” I feel guilty taking advantage, or even admitting that I need the help year after year. I won’t call unless I am absolutely desperate. The friends who just show-up with groceries, send cards, or insist on babysitting, are miracle workers. They will never understand the magnitude of what their kindness means to me and my family.
- You are going through so much, yet you still have such joy. How do you do that? The opportunity to think about my disease through a positive scope is a rare one. I have found that my comrades in chronic illness have a wisdom and spirit that should be shared. Ask the big questions and settle in for an inspiring conversation.
That said, I would be amiss if I didn’t make it clear that I know what words hurt, because I have been there. But I also know what heals, because I have been the grateful and often undeserving recipient in an endless chain of support. So please be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle, even if you can’t see it.